Guest Post: This is Your Brain on Motherhood

A slightly belated Happy New Year, everyone!

As the next month or two progress, I’ll be hard at work preparing for the publication of MEAN MOMS RULE, WHY DOING THE HARD STUFF NOW CREATES GOOD KIDS LATER. I’m so excited about the possibilities for this fresh, new year, and I hope you are, too.

But before all that, I’m kicking off my 2012 blogging with a guest post from a writer and friend, Kayt Sukel, whose new book, DIRTY MINDS: HOW OUR BRAINS INFLUENCE LOVE, SEX, AND RELATIONSHIPS, published by Simon and Schuster, was released last week. I was privileged to be there (sort of) at the creation, having read Kayt’s proposal before she even sold the idea. I knew she had a winner with the idea: the neuroscience of love. Genius! Here’s the (very cool-looking) cover:

Now, I can guess what you’re about to ask — what does this all have to do with parenting, or to be more specific, with being a Mean Mom? A lot, says Kayt. Turns out (as any mother knows more or less instinctively) our brains are wired to adore our children. But does “adore” have to mean “indulge” (in its negative, hyper-vigiliant, over-protecting sense)? Do we have to fight our own neurobiology to, as Kayt writes in this post, say “no” to our children? In a sense, yes. But she doesn’t call it fighting, as you’ll see. I love this: she calls it “tricking” our brains — altered by pregnancy and motherhood to be a “yes” machine to our undoubtedly awesome children — into doing the right thing.

So without further ado, here’s Kayt Sukel: mother, writer, intrepid traveler, and friend:

Why Saying “No” Is Harder (But Smarter) Than You Think

by Kayt Sukel

No. This is the probably the most overused word in the Mom playbook. There are some days I feel like I’m saying no to my son, Chet, all day long. No, you can’t have M&Ms for breakfast. No, you can’t put pants on the cat. No, you need to stop trying to climb the chandelier. No, you can’t stay out for five more minutes. No, it’s time to turn the video game off. (And no, I don’t care if you and Mario have almost gotten to that psychedelic, seizure-inducing level).

Part of my job, as I see it, is to make sure my son eats good food, gets enough sleep, does his homework and avoids bodily injury from (or to) the cat. I’m also supposed to try to shape him into a good person with a sense of empathy, humor and wonder. And so I say no. A lot. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. In fact, sometimes I feel like I lose a tiny piece of my soul every time the n-word passes my lips. Why? Because I am drop-dead, crazy-in-love with my boy.

That’s right: My kid is awesome. He is smart, funny, playful and gorgeous. He’s got a few quirks, sure, but they are awesome quirks. Did I mention that he’s awesome? And, you know, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I’m pretty certain that he’s just plain better than most other kids. There is something about him that’s so good and so right that I always pause before it’s time to drop the hammer and think, “He’s so cute. Peanut M&Ms must have some protein in them. What would be the harm in letting him have those instead of oatmeal this morning?” But I have to stop myself. Because the urge to give in the cuteness and offer the asked-for M&Ms to make him happy? That’s just my brain playing tricks on me.

Yep, my brain. As it turns out, a mother’s brain changes quite a bit during pregnancy. Researchers have found that certain regions of a woman’s brain are altered right along with her belly, feet and mood while she cooks up her offspring. They are the brain areas that are most involved with parenting and love behaviors. These changes are preparing us for the challenges — and there are quite a few — of caring for a newborn. But some of those changes stick around long past the early months. Semir Zeki, a neuroscientist who studies love and the brain at University College London, put mothers in a brain scanner and looked at where blood was flowing — called “activation” — when they gazed at photos of their offspring. In brain-scan speak, activation is a good thing — it tells us a particular brain area is being used during a task. In contrast, “deactivation,” or a lack of blood flow, means that an area isn’t getting any play. No surprise: Zeki found there was a significant activation in areas that are rich in dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical that has been linked to reward processing, love and drug addiction. Loving on our kids feels good, after all. And adoring them, even when they decorate a freshly painted wall with lipstick, seems effortless.

But he also found significant deactivation in brain areas that are associated with judgment, assessment of other people’s intentions and negative emotions. That means that simply looking at our kids, our little treasures, may make us turn off our judgment. Ringing any bells? Zeki concluded that love, both romantic and maternal, creates a “push-pull mechanism” in our brains, softening our judgment and blunting our assessment skills. That’s what allows us to justify our kids’ bad behavior, even when we know better. It’s what may make us back off of those no’s when we know better.

Denise often talks about why isn’t not easy being a Mean Mom. She’s right: it’s not. And as I learned in my research for DIRTY MINDS, it may not be our brain’s default parenting setting either. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. So recognize your own internal push-pull mechanism. Love on your kids, let them know how great they are and say yes when you can. But when push comes to shove, and it’s for their own good, you need to slide off the brain’s rose-colored glasses and take the hard line.

But feel free to give them a big hug right after. Because, after all, they are awesome.

Kayt Sukel and her awesome son, Chet

Kayt Sukel is a passionate traveler, science writer and Mom whose work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New Scientist, the Washington Post, Parenting and American Baby.  She is a partner in the award-winning family travel website Travel Savvy Mom and can frequently be found oversharing on Twitter as @kaytsukel.  Her first book, DIRTY MINDS:  HOW OUR BRAINS INFLUENCE LOVE, SEX AND RELATIONSHIPS is fresh off the presses.  This funny and irreverent tome takes on the age-old question,”What is love?” from a neurobiological perspective–and offers a frank discussion on why our brains allow us to adore our children despite their consistent and daily efforts to wear out our last nerves.